08/08/2012 11:12 EDT | Updated 10/08/2012 05:12 EDT

New taekwondo rule: Don't bother kicking hard, though athletes say they will still kick to win

LONDON - Taekwondo officials trying to take the sting out of the sport's deadliest kicks have come up with an interesting new rule: don't bother kicking hard.

To make the sport safer, officials recently announced that any head kicks will be awarded points even if there is no force behind the kick; athletes only need to touch their opponent's head with their foot to score.

The London Olympics will be the first games to use the new rule. Previously, players had to use some power to demonstrate a proper kicking technique, and kicks that just grazed or touched the opponent's head didn't count. That's now history.

The change has met with criticism from some of the sport's top athletes, who say it undermines the spirit of the martial art, originally developed by ancient Korean warriors.

"Personally, I think it's a little silly," said American Steven Lopez, a double gold Olympic medallist and record five-time world champion. "Taekwondo is a full-contact combat sport and I think a good head kick should still be a good head kick."

Lopez said he would work with the new rule, "but this doesn't change the fact that I want to kick (my opponent's) head as hard and as fast as possible," he added. "If a guy can now find a way to score off of me with just his pinkie toe touching my head, I'll find a way to beat him."

Officials at the World Taekwondo Federation say the change was made to protect athletes. In recent years, the governing body tweaked the rules to grant players more points for head kicks — athletes now score three to four points for head shots versus one to two points for kicks to the body. That motivated fighters to kick their opponent's head more often, even though none of the protective equipment, a dipped foam headguard and a mouthguard, has changed.

"We modified the rules for safety," said Philippe Bouedo of the taekwondo federation. "With the new rule, you just have to have accuracy, not power," he said. "We're moving from a power sport to a touch sport for the safety of players."

But that may not be entirely feasible.

Some of taekwondo's most lethal kicks, which involve a spinning technique, are extremely challenging to slow down or execute without power.

"You can't throw a spinning hook kick without force," said Lopez, referring to one of the kicks frequently used to knock out opponents. "Or if you do, it will be superslow and by the time you do it, they will have kicked you in the face."

Others said the new rule might make fights more action-packed. "I can conserve my energy and kick more since I don't always have to kick hard," said Joel Gonzalez of Spain, the top-ranked fighter in his 58-kilogram division.

He acknowledged, the change does not reflect taekwondo's origins as a martial art intended to cripple the adversary. "I don't kick as hard so that is a gift to my opponent," Gonzalez said. "But it also means I can kick to the head more times since it isn't as difficult."

Australian athlete Safwan Khalil said he's adjusted his fight strategy now that he knows he doesn't have to kick hard to score a head shot. "It's easier to follow up a head kick with another combination since you don't have to kick hard," he said.

Khalil said that even though the change might make taekwondo safer for players, it was still a combat sport. "There won't be less knock-outs," he said. "People are still going to go for the head even if they don't use as much power as before."

With Olympic medals at stake, Lopez doubted fighters would go any easier on each other.

"Everyone wants a medal at the end of the day," he said. "No one's going to stand in my way and stop my dreams," Lopez said. "I'm going to kick as hard as I can."